Apologies to my regular readers for there not being many posts over the last week, but my spare time has been taken up with building work, namely restoring a fireplace to its former glory and function.
I’ve had to put aside time to learn the art and indeed alchemy of making lime mortar and lime concrete, for that was what was required to backfill the fireback, and how to build a hearth that satisfies the building regulations. I’ve had an intensive period of learning about Class One flues, balancing flue gas egress with combustion air ingress, bricklaying, concrete making, ancient mortar and masonry techniques, the chemistry and physics of combustion, gas regulations and the different types of fireplaces and their efficiency. I’ve also learned that I should be the last person in the world who someone should call if plastering a wall is required. I managed to do acceptably well at everything else about this project, apart from plastering. This project also led me to research the history of fireplaces, hearths and stove construction and on my travels through that giant chaotic library that is the Internet, found some historical and technical curiosities that fascinated me.
One such document that enthralled me, but would probably be a good soporific for everyone else, was an archive document about the use of Coke burning appliances in homes. It is now virtually forgotten how huge Britain’s Coke industry once was. The heating of coal in retorts to produce Coal Gas for Britain’s homes and industry left behind a fabulous byproduct called Coke, which could be burned in special appliances. Because Coke was so plentiful, it made a good heating fuel for houses, although it did sometimes require assistance to get it burning. This assistance was supplied by a gas heater that was embedded in the grate of the appliance which heated the Coke to get it burning, at which point the gas was turned off.
Here’s the document in question, published by National Federation of Gas Coke Associations in 1948 and detailing the types of Coke burning appliances that were approved for use in the home and could be used for either room heating and/or hot water heating depending on the type of appliance. Sorry about the formatting but that is the way the document came to me.
In Britain, we still have a Coke industry of sorts, although from what I can gather there are only a few companies that specialise in making Coke, for the use of farriers, blacksmiths etc in their forges. As Britain now uses natural gas for its heating and to drive some power stations, there is no longer the huge amount of leftover coke on the market from the Coal Gas industry. However, although the impetus for supplying Coke as byproduct of coal-gas has disappeared, it should not be forgotten that Britain is still sitting on top of significant amounts of coal reserves. Not only can this coal be dug out of the ground and burned in power stations to produce electricity, it can also be a valuable chemical feedstock for all sorts of basic industrial chemicals such as Phenol and Napthalene. In areas where the coal cannot be extracted by either open cast or deep mining, then there is underground gasification of the coal trapped there, to make use of it.
Undertaking this, which was for me a massive building project, has made me feel more and more angry at the fact that Britain is sitting on top of enough coal to keep the lights on, and possibly feed a coal-based chemical industry but we do not seem to be able to do so. Our governments would rather promote the inefficient wind power industry that has never worked to its full capacity and is unreliable in the extreme, rather than the tried and tested use of coal for both power generation and as a chemical feedstock.
Coal is a wonderful substance that can give us heat, light, power and basic chemicals, and it is criminal to continue to listen to the deluded Greens and leave all this coal to just sit in the ground when it could and should be dug up and used for the benefit of all Britons.
The last week or so has taught me a lot about chemistry, physics, construction techniques, materials science politics and history. It’s amazing what a person can learn just by putting in a fireplace.